Clear-cut forest in British Columbia.
Clear-cut forest in British Columbia. Credit: Utah Population and Environment Council Credit: Utah Population and Environment Council

As wildfires rage across the country once again, and global temperatures continue to breach key thresholds, the language of the “new normal” resounds across the political and media landscape. 

The term is a curious one. There is, of course, nothing “normal” about the climate situation. Nor is it a shift to a new stable state of affairs, as the phrase might imply – climate change is a rapidly accelerating dynamic.

Yet calling the climate situation normal is itself normalizing. The clear message is that we need to get used to such events and adapt as best we can – and that, although we are ultimately responsible for them, they are now in large part beyond our control. 

The message is disempowering.  And it is rooted in the larger idea that environmental issues are everyone’s equal fault, and that everyone equally suffers the consequences.  

That idea ignores the reality that the effects of climate change are bolstered by the particular actions of specific corporations – they are not simply the result of climate change alone. 

How logging practices unleashed wildfires

For example, it is overly simplistic to say that the increasing severity and frequency of wildfires is simply an inevitable outcome of climate change. Yes, climate change is a fundamental driver. But equally critical is the large-scale industrial forestry’s legacy of mismanagement. 

To understand why our forests have become the inferno-generating machines that they are today, we must look to the transformative impact of oligopolistic for-profit forestry. (The focus here is on British Columbia, but the findings generalize widely.)

Fire is a natural component of forest ecosystems. It serves important ecological functions, including returning nutrients to the soil and facilitating seed germination. Regular fire activity can serve to limit more extreme fires in the future. 

This reality was long-recognized by Indigenous people, who regularly utilized controlled cultural burning as part of an embedded and sustainable approach to environmental management. But the practice was outlawed and suppressed post-colonization. 

This regime of fire prevention and suppression is still dominant. It mostly serves the forest industry. But it also results in a build-up of fuel – when fire does break out, it is now much more intense. Clear-cutting – the practice where all the trees in a region are uniformly cut down – itself exacerbates fire risk. It leaves an enormous amount of biomass behind, while exposing the forest floor to direct sunlight. The biomass is then prone to drying out and fuelling fires.

Making matters worse, companies then re-plant trees unnaturally close to each other in order to maximize stocking density, further exacerbating fire risk.

Converting forests into tree plantations also reduces biodiversity, which in turn increases the risk of fire. Unsustainable rates of logging have seen clear-cuts replanted with swathes of trees of the same age and species – which are then harvested before they reach full maturity. The result is a forest cover dominated by younger trees, which are more susceptible to fire than their mature counterparts. 

Biodiversity, on the other had, can confer fire resistance. A particularly salient example is the groves of deciduous trees in coniferous forests that act as natural firebreaks

Incredibly, the British Columbia Ministry of Forests continues to mandate the poisoning of deciduous species such as aspen. The ministry considers the trees an unproductive “weed” species (they do it using glyphosate,  which is designated as a “probable carcinogen.”)  

Logging practices bolster diseases, floods

Lack of diversity also increases disease susceptibility. Witness the devastating impacts of the mountain pine beetle that ravaged the interior forests of the province. 

Climate change’s role in these outbreaks received considerable attention. But a natural forest landscape with trees of varying species and age (thick-barked older trees and juveniles are resistant to the beetle’s impact) may have prevented the interior forests from transforming into vast tracts of dead, dry-as-a-bone brown trees – only a spark away from catastrophe. The resulting bonanza of salvage logging only served to worsen the forest fire situation.

Fire is not the only “inevitable consequence of climate change” that logging practices are responsible for: there is also flooding. 

Extensive clearcutting in steep terrain reduces soil’s ability to absorb water, while also destabilizing terrain, leading to landslides. 

Regulations have not mandated forestry companies to properly construct or decommission logging roads. The estimated 600,000 kilometers of resource roads that riddle the forests of British Columbia (1.5 million km in all of Canada) pose an ongoing flooding hazard. 

There is significant evidence that the industry’s failure to decommission logging roads is directly linked to landslides that accompanied the atmospheric river of 2021. They led to the tragic loss of five people.

A direct consequence, not an inevitable result

These examples, I hope, show how profit-seeking operations directly connect to environmental realities like floods and fires. 

Yet, the role of the logging industry – and of capital accumulation more generally – remains conspicuously absent from official assessments of climate risk. 

Hence, the one-two punch of 2021 – a deadly heat dome followed by a catastrophic atmospheric river – takes on a new resonance. We can recognize it as the direct consequence of specific activities from specific corporations, instead of undifferentiated blowback for nameless and faceless human irresponsibility. 

The issue is not merely the result of the aggregate of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) that we as a species collectively emit across the globe – but the consequence of particular concrete actions (or inactions) made with a cold eye toward increasing revenue.

To be clear, this is not to claim – as some denialists have made – that climate change is irrelevant to natural disasters like wildfires. Clearly it is, and clearly we must go all hands to the pumps (pardon the metaphor) both to mitigate and to adapt. 

It is also the case that forestry itself contributes directly to the emission of GHGs. And, of course, the fires that result from logging practices release enormous quantities of GHGs and feed the positive feedback system (and the myriad related environmental feedback loops – extreme fire, for example, turns the soil hydrophobic, thereby worsening flooding.) 

Not prisoners of a new normal

I want to assert, however, that material practices and conditions do not just drive climate change in the abstract, but also directly shape environmental consequences. 

There is a false polarity, here – climate change is thought of either as a species-level problem, or the sum of every individual’s problems. In the former case, the remedy only lies solely in changing our global ways. In the latter, it resides in a myriad of individual consumers’ decisions. 

Both fit well into the ideology of neoliberal capitalism. But in fact, both the drivers of anthropogenic climate change and its environmental consequences are the logical consequences of systems that extract as much profit as possible from the natural capital that is the bounty of the earth. 

In order to reverse climate change and its consequences, it is essential to realize this. 

We are not simply the prisoners of an inevitable “new normal” that flows from some abstract and apolitical notion of “human activity.” Once we realize this, we become empowered. 

It is possible to change the political conditions of our system – just not as isolated individuals. Instead we must organize. 

In British Columbia, that change includes abolishing a forest tenure system that grants a handful of multinational corporations near-exclusive control over the public land that makes up the vast majority of the province. It also means recognizing and respecting the rights, title and practices of Indigenous peoples and supporting their legacy of profoundly sustainable engagement with the natural world. And it requires grounding environmental governance more generally in the community, and empowering workers – those who create wealth from our shared ecological capital – to assert ownership and control over the creation of that wealth.

Greg Simmons

Greg Simmons is a faculty member in the Department of Criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU). His research centres on green criminology and political ecology.